News Analysis

Thursday 18 September 2014

The gaffe-ridden 'Yes' campaign spluttered into action far too late

Published 15/06/2008 | 00:00

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WOULD you buy a used car from this man? When that question was first employed in 1960, it was enough to sink the US presidential campaign of the late Richard Nixon.

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Roll forward to the Ireland of today, and it seems that voters wouldn't even bring a new car for a test drive if Taoiseach Brian Cowen was the man dangling the keys on the forecourt.

The defeat of the government-led Yes campaign at the hands of the motley right and left alliance of Libertas, Sinn Fein et al, shows just how little the Irish people trust the established political class now.

The underlying public perception that the politicians who advocated the passing of the treaty were merely looking after their own interests, probably wasn't helped by the leaders of the main parties themselves, who instead of explaining why people should vote yes, simply insisted that they should.

Not helping the politicians' cause was their clear inability to come together in a non-partisan campaign to win the referendum.

Tellingly, the first joint news conference held by Taoiseach Brian Cowen, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny and Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore was held just three days before last week's poll.

By then, the referendum horse had long since bolted.

While Fianna Fail and the main opposition parties wasted months navel gazing over the timing of Bertie Ahern's departure, Libertas -- the right-wing European think-tank headed up by businessman Declan Ganley -- seized the opportunity to sow the seeds of doubt over Lisbon.

Since launching his campaign on March 13, Ganley repeatedly pressed home the No campaign's warnings on the loss of our EU commissioner, threats to our neutrality, and the dangers of the treaty for the jealously-guarded 12.5 per cent corporation tax rate. It would be another three weeks after that before Ahern announced his resignation, setting in train a five-week transition period between his departure and Cowen's arrival.

With the main political parties distracted, the No campaign was boosted again on April 14, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Irish voters to support the treaty. Mrs Merkel's intervention during a visit to Dublin saw the Government and Fine Gael accused of a u-turn on their stated position that they would discourage foreign leaders from coming to Ireland during the referendum campaign.

Libertas got another boost on April 20, with aviation entrepreneur Ulick McEvaddy coming out in support of the No campaign. A long-time friend of EU commissioner Charlie McCreevy and PD Mary Harney, McEvaddy denounced the treaty as "totally unintelligible", adding that it would be disastrous for Europe if it was passed in its present form.

On May 12, and just five days in office, newly installed Taoiseach Brian Cowen formally set the date for the referendum for June 12, giving the Yes campaign just four weeks to convince voters.

Taking to the airwaves, the Taoiseach dealt a damaging blow to his own side on the same day, admitting in a radio interview that he had not read the Lisbon Treaty himself.

Five days later, on May 17, the first Irish Times opinion poll appeared to give the Yes campaign some hope, with 35 per cent of those asked stating their intention to support the referendum. Some 18 per cent said they would vote 'No', while 47 per cent remained undecided.

The undecided voters, and even some of those intent on voting Yes, may well have taken note on May 20, with Tanaiste Mary Coughlan's embarrassing remark that large EU countries had more than one commissioner.

Adding to the Yes campaign's woes on May 23, Charlie McCreevy arrived home from Brussels to campaign in Kildare with Taoiseach Brian Cowen.

Speaking to reporters, McCreevy admitted that, like Cowen, he hadn't read the Lisbon Treaty either. The loquacious McCreevy quipped how he wouldn't expect any "sane, sensible person" to read the document in its entirety.

A Red C opinion poll in the Sunday Business Post two days later suggested 41 per cent intended to vote Yes, while 33 per cent would vote No. Worryingly for the Yes side, 26 per cent of those polled remained undecided.

May 26 saw another intervention from Europe, with EU President Jose Manuel Barroso warning voters of the consequences for the EU and for Ireland of a No vote. Addressing a European think-tank in Dublin, he said, "there is no Plan B", while adding of the coming referendum, "we will all pay a price for it, Ireland included, if this is not done in a proper way".

While the major employers' representative organisations such as Ibec implored the public to vote Yes, on May 30, the country's largest trade union, Siptu, fired a warning shot across Taoiseach Brian Cowen's bow.

The union, which represents 200,000 workers, said it would not support the Lisbon Treaty, unless the government promised to introduce legislation allowing for collective bargaining, a clause which is already referenced in the treaty under the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

As concern crept in on the Yes side, June 2 saw the first sign of a weakening in Cowen's resolve as he gave a commitment to the Irish Farmers' Association to employ Ireland's veto on any unfavourable deal at the World Trade Organisation talks.

With the farmers now supposedly on side, the Yes campaign was left embarrassed just two days later, on June 4, with the head of the Referendum Commission, Mr Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill, unable -- momentarily -- to explain the complexities surrounding certain EU voting rules contained in the treaty text. The judge's hesitation at a press conference served to reinforce claims by the No side that the treaty was unintelligible.

SEE ANALYSIS, PAGES 27,28,29,40

With one week to go to referendum day, the Irish Times opinion poll on June 6 showed a dramatic increase in the number of people intending to vote No. Compared to a lowly 18 per cent three weeks previously, 35 per cent now said they intended to reject the Lisbon Treaty.

The percentage of Yes voters, meanwhile, declined from 35 to 30 per cent, and 28 per cent of those polled remained undecided, while 7 per cent insisted that they wouldn't vote at all.

More interesting, however, were the poll results for the individual political parties. Fine Gael was acutely embarrassed, with 40 per cent of its supporters saying they intended to vote No.

Further bad news for the Yes side came the next day, with Siptu reiterating that it would not support the passing of the Lisbon Treaty in the absence of a commitment from Government to introduce legislation allowing for collective bargaining for workers.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen responded, saying he couldn't give any guarantee on the matter in advance of the national pay talks, where the issue of collective bargaining was already down for discussion.

Last week, and after several weeks of overt and implied criticisms of each others' campaigns, the leaders of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Labour Party finally came together in a joint press conference to call for a Yes vote, kicking off a last gasp, three-day drive to pass the Lisbon referendum.

But it was all too little and far too late. The rest, as they say, is history.

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